Decorah, IA

Decorah, IA is a pretty little town of 8,000 situated on a branch of the Iowa River. It is the home of Luther College. The town was settled largely by Norwegian immigrants to the US, hence the establishment of a Lutheran college. Over time, Luther College acquired quite a collection of historical artefacts about Norwegian immigration to the US. Eventually, this collection was “spun-off” as a privately funded museum in downtown Decorah called Vesterheim, the Norwegian-American Museum. Kris was very eager to visit, especially given her work on a masters thesis on Norwegian immigration to the US many years ago.

We got there at 10AM, stayed until noon, went out for a Mexican lunch, and then returned to the museum and stayed until closing time at 5PM. This was an excellent museum with four floors of exhibits. The first floor relates to conditions in Norway at the time of peak immigration to the US. Next to Ireland, Norway gave up the largest fraction of its population to emigration to the US. One of the factors cited for the pressure to emigrate was the development of the smallpox vaccine. The resulting decline in the death rate contributed to creating a population boom that the arable land of Norway could not support.

The second floor artifacts related to crossing the Atlantic and conditions of the immigrants when they got to America. The crossing displays included an entire sailing boat that two Norwegians used to sail to New York in 1933. (It is an interesting boat, but not typical of how the vast majority of Norwegians came to the US, of course. On the other hand, it has the valuable property of being small enough to fit inside the museum, unlike more the more typical sailing ship!) The Norwegians were great woodworkers, so many of the artifacts they made to begin life in America show off these skills.

The third floor included many stunning examples of all types of needlework. Especially impressive was the cutwork (Hardanger) embroidery. I remarked to Kris that perhaps it was not the lonely prairie life that led many Norwegian-American immigrant women to commit suicide, rather it was the incredibly tedious, fine work that went into their embroidery! Finally, the third floor held a special exhibit of chairs made from tree stumps. As you can imagine, the carved decorations on these chairs was astonishing.

But then we discovered that the museum was not big enough to contain all of their collection! They had a collection of buildings outdoors. These included an entire church shipped from North Dakota, an entire grist mill, an entire house and its belongings shipped from Norway, and several houses erected by early pioneers brought from nearby farms to Vesterheim in Decorah. We toured them all with a gregarious guide who exhibited a vast knowledge of the immigrant experience. Before the outdoor tour began, the guide asked us about our connections to Norway. I was the only one who did not have a relatively recent Norwegian ancestor, so I said that my interest came from learning about those who raped my Irish ancestors. I’m not sure how that attempt at humor came off.

But we were not done. Vesterheim has a basement. It includes two entire Lutheran church apses complete with altars and a tribute to the Norwegian-American battalion that was formed to help in the liberation of Norway during WWII.

It was hard to leave the gift shop without buying one of the many intricately knitted Norwegian sweaters on sale, but the thought of lugging it around the world in a tropical climate for a year kept our fiscal discipline intact. We found a lovely restaurant off the main street in town and had one of the best meals of our lives (literally). Everything was fresh and the chef a real chef.

We decided to spend a second night (Monday) in Decorah so that we could do some homework and planning ahead. I prepared the applications for our Sri Lankan entry visas and Kris read travel literature about the Badlands and the Black Hills in South Dakota, our next destination.

Tim

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